Saturday, July 21, 2018

Chillin’ and Grillin’ in Southwest Virginia

Southwest Virginia is a great location to have a barbecue cookoff in the middle of July. On an Appalachian plateau in the lush mountains of this corner of Virginia, the town of Wise seems to enjoy unusually cool breezes while most of the East Coast struggles with hot summer temperatures. With daily low temperatures around 60 degrees and average temps of 72 in July, this area is the perfect place to escape the heat even when the cookers of competitive barbecue teams are smokin’ hot.

Cooking teams set up along Main Street in Wise.

The annual cookoff in Wise is Chillin’ and Grillin’ in the Glades, an appropriate name, particularly the chillin’ part. Begun in 2013 as an amateur event, the contest has grown each year, now is a three-day BBQ and music festival, and is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Teams compete for the title of Virginia State Champion, and 29 teams competed this year also for prize money totaling $7,500, although a few more teams had registered but were not able to participate.

Big Glades Community Square is the venue for the festival's musical performances.

All judging activities took place in The Inn at Wise, a stately three-story hotel built in 1910 that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Downtown Wise is essentially the same now as it was 100 years ago except a few buildings have been removed. For a century, the Inn served as the cultural hub of the region. It was also the birthplace of Clinch Valley College, which is now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise that serves 2,000 students.

The Inn at Wise is contest central for the cookoff.

In addition to being the scene of a barbecue cookoff in July, Wise draws tourists regularly to its area. The town is a destination on The Crooked Road, which is Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail and connects communities and venues in 19 counties of Southwest Virginia where traditional mountain music is celebrated.

The team Redneck Scientific, across the street from the historic courthouse, won the pork ribs category as well as reserve champion honors.

The hot, smoking cookers in Wise for the barbecue cookoff don’t interfere with the cool, comfortable atmosphere of the mountain town. Even as the event continues to grow, Chillin’ and Grillin’ will continue to merit both parts of its name – the perfect place to chill and grill in July.

The original desk and mahogany mail slots maintain the historic feel at The Inn at Wise.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Eastern N.C. Style Barbecue in the Blue Ridge Mountains

It’s a topsy-turvy world. Now you can travel west to the Blue Ridge Mountains to enjoy eastern North Carolina-style barbecue. Since it opened in Asheville in 2015, Buxton Hall Barbecue has been a destination for barbecue fans.

Could this building have been home to a roller rink?

The food is made right in front of you in a wide-open kitchen. Whole hogs are smoked low and slow for 18 hours over hardwood coals in the traditional eastern N.C. style and basted with a vinegar mop based on a family recipe of chef Elliott Moss, who grew up in Florence, S.C. True to eastern N.C., the menu lists “BBQ mop,” not sauce, as the baste that moistens and flavors the meat.

The wide-open kitchen adjoins the dining area.

Loyal to its region, Buxton Hall sources its pasture-raised hogs, produce and other ingredients from area farms. Although pulled pork is the reason many customers visit Buxton Hall, fried chicken and catfish are also popular, and South Carolina-style “hash” is served in a combo plate with barbecue. In addition to plates that come with cornbread and pickles, sandwich options include barbecue, chicken and catfish, and the sandwiches are as good as the plates. In fact, the “Fried Chicken Sandwich of the Year” as proclaimed by Bon Appétit in 2016 is the one made at Buxton Hall.

A cooked whole hog has just been taken out of a smoker.

The dozen sides at Buxton Hall deserve special mention and are very appealing. Narrowing down to the two that come with a plate is difficult. The collard greens, which has flavors of sweet and sour, are worth taking home to serve to company if any are left over. The green beans are good but have a spicy kick that need to be calmed down with a sip of a cold beverage. Next time I will try the chicken bog -- a combination of rice, sausage and peas. The spiced peaches with fromage blanc also are tempting.

The sauce bar satisfies more than one regional preference.

The hushpuppies are crispy and convey buttermilk and jalapeño flavors. Other appetizers include mussels cooked under the pig (not the typical menu offering of a barbecue pitmaster) and smoky pimento cheese.

My pulled pork plate with collard greens, green beans and cornbread is ready to be enjoyed.

Because Buxton Hall has an in-house bakery, all desserts are homemade. I couldn’t leave with trying the banana pudding pie, which was delicious. With a wafer crumb crust and a brown sugar meringue top, it was the perfect end to the peppery and vinegary entrée. Although I’d order the same dessert on another visit, the nectarine poundcake and black forest cake were also top contenders on the dessert list. On the day I visited, the black raspberry pie wasn’t available. If it had been, I would have taken home a serving.

Banana pudding pie is a clear favorite.

Buxton Hall represents the “new” style of barbecue establishments, as explained by food writer Kathleen Purvis. Traditional barbecue fare is offered in a large restaurant with meat sourced locally and cooked over wood by an owner whose reputation was made in fine dining, a long and interesting list of sides, creative appetizers and craft beer. Buxton Hall not only has craft beer but also the “world famous” Buxton Slushie, a frozen concoction of bourbon and Cheerwine, along with several creative cocktails. An extensive list of beer and wine is available as is the traditional iced tea (sweet or unsweet).

The Buxton Slushie (bourbon and Cheerwine) is "world famous" (well, it's becoming better known).

The restaurant’s historic location is on Asheville’s South Slope. The enormous space has been a boat showroom, the site of auto shops and even a wood-floored roller rink. Along the walls are several murals, well worth preserving, that date to 1936.

A skier in a mural on a side wall seems to be airborne over wood cut for the kitchen.

The steady stream of customers who arrive each day don’t seem perplexed at finding whole hog barbecue prepared in the style of eastern North Carolina in western Asheville. Moss and his partner Meherwan Iran (both are James Beard nominees) say that they are “revitalizing Carolina barbecue history,” and the customers enjoy experiencing that renaissance.

The menu includes plates, sandwiches and an extensive list of sides.